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NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, said resolving the problem must be top of Ms Atkins’s agenda.
Her move to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) came days after new figures showed 7.77 million people were waiting for NHS treatment in England, the highest number since records began in 2007.
A Cambridge graduate and former barrister, the new Health Secretary was elected MP for Louth and Horncastle in May 2015 and served as Financial Secretary to the Treasury for a little over a year prior to Monday’s appointment. She has also held roles in the Ministry of Justice and Home Office.
As women’s minister, she said she was “cautious” about the number of teenagers undergoing gender reassignment treatment and warned the country needed to be “particularly alert” to the issue.
Her husband, Paul Kenward, is CEO of ABF Sugar, overseeing British Sugar, which grows non-psychoactive cannabis for medical uses in a massive glasshouse in Wissenden, Norfolk – reported in recent years to be the largest of its kind in Britain.
It raises questions over how she will deal with the topic in her new brief, as she recused herself from policy or decisions relating to the drug years ago – when Mr Kenward was managing director of British Sugar – over a potential conflict of interest.
Asked for comment, Ms Atkins’ team pointed to her new department.
Ms Coffey, a close ally of Liz Truss whose skills on the media round were questioned by some in Downing Street, left Government entirely – telling Mr Sunak she felt it was the “right time to step back”.
The former deputy prime minister, who has held several cabinet jobs, has faced ridicule in the past for a series of gaffes.
Last month, she told MPs rain coming from the wrong direction was to blame for the chaos caused by Storm Babet, the deadliest to hit the UK in 15 years.
Within days of being made environment secretary last year, she caused a stir by suggesting the Cop27 summit was “just a gathering of people in Egypt”.
In an exchange of letters with the Prime Minister, Ms Coffey said: “I look forward to supporting you from the backbenches and working together for a Conservative majority at the next election, which I believe to be profoundly in the national interest.”
Mr Sunak thanked her for “years of dedicated ministerial service”.
Reshuffle had built a ‘united team’
Elsewhere, Laura Trott, a Downing Street aide during Lord Cameron’s tenure, was promoted to Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
The former pensions minister replaced John Glen, who became paymaster general, while former roads minister Richard Holden took over from Greg Hands as chairman of the Tory Party.
Mr Hands said he was “disappointed” to have lost his job, but welcomed his return to the international trade portfolio.
Mr Sunak said the Cabinet reshuffle had built a “united team”.
He tweeted: “Today we have built a united team ready to deliver the changes this country needs for the long term.
“Professionalism, integrity and experience – this is a team that will be bold in making the right decisions for our great country, not the easy ones.”
The DHSC has been approached for comment.